There’s no such thing as free choice, so why single out sex workers?

There is no such thing as a free choice.

Everything is informed by our environments. Everything is manipulated and shaped and squeezed by what is happening around us. It is easy to think that we made a completely free choice. Economics completely depends on this notion.  Yet, even with perfect information, we are moulded like clay by the society that made us.

To work is not a free choice. No work is. Work is a product of capitalist patriarchy. You may like your job. You may hate your job. You may feel that your job changes the world. You may feel as though your job is pointless. You may work at home as a parent, or you may work in an investment bank. Maybe you think you chose your work, or maybe you feel as though you’re just trying to make ends meet and wish you could be a doctor rather than an accountant.

For most of us, work is a necessity to survive. It is doing something we would not normally do–no matter how much you like your job, would you do it for eight hours a day without any pay?–in exchange for the means to live. Ultimately, we are all being coerced into work: sometimes gently, and sometimes forcibly, as is seen in workfare programmes. To work is not a free choice, and it is a travesty that after centuries of capitalism, many simply cannot imagine a future without work so invent fairy stories about the glory and honour in work.

Sexual consent is not a free choice. Not completely, not 100%. We have all absorbed some of capitalist patriarchy, and may feel obliged, or feel pity, or feel horny or drunk or any of the other emotions that may lead to sex which under other circumstances we would not have had sex. There are power differentials under patriarchy: in heterosexual sex, the man will have more power. Sex which rejects this power differential–for example, political lesbianism–is still shaped by patriarchy. It is not a free choice, it is a rejection of another norm. Even celibacy falls prey to this. We are mired in social relations and power relations when it comes to sex, yet we are able to make choices which are adequately consensual.

Sex and work are full of problems which require addressing, which require criticism and discussion with an eye to radical, revolutionary solutions. Yet at present, we must know that these things are full of compromise, and we are not making completely free choices, but merely the freest choice possible. Many are not thinking this broadly, which is precisely why there is so much nonsense levelled at sex workers.

The fact is, the work we do and the sex we have (or do not have) is a compromise under capitalist patriarchy. Every single one of us makes a compromise. It is not a truly free choice, but it is as free as possible. Some people choose sex work.

Likewise, there are many of us who definitely do not choose the work we do or the sex we have. Human trafficking extends far beyond forcing people into sex work: there are people forced to work for long hours in sweatshops or to fight in wars. Rape affects a frighteningly large number of people, and the majority of people affected are not sex workers.

To attack sex work without any broader critique of capitalist patriarchy is both nonsensical and harmful. Yet this is precisely what is being done. We are seeing a shift from criminalising the sex workers themselves towards criminalising clients of sex workers (the “Nordic” model), a move which solves precisely nothing as it is failing to address any of the root problems with work and fucking under patriarchy.

From a revolutionary perspective, merely turning our focus on sex work and treating it as having exceptional inherent problems which makes it somehow distinct from the rest of capitalist patriarchy means that we can never make any progress. Perhaps it feels easier to attack a kind of work we do not do or a kind of sex we are not having: it is easier. It’s a Herculean task clearing up the mess of capitalist patriarchy, and it sucks to have to be critical of everything. Yet if there is a genuine interest in liberating humans from exploitation, we must think big.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the blinkered analysis of sex work is harmful to sex workers themselves. It is not pleasant to be told repeatedly that the work you do should be illegal, or that you are a victim of false consciousness, or that the work you do is devastatingly immoral and is harming everyone else.Yet this is something sex workers put up with from people who are claiming to be saving them. Even the precious Nordic model, held up to be something which is definitely not attacking sex workers has actually been found to increase violence against sex workers, to the point that Norway are considering doing away with it.

Sex workers survive and negotiate life under capitalist patriarchy, yet get an extra heap of bullshit from both the side which chooses to maintain capitalist patriarchy and those who think they are doing something to overthrow it.

If we want to get anything done, we must show solidarity with sex workers: just as we should with any other workers. We must accept that it is entirely possible to choose to work in sex work as much as it is possible to choose to work in a sandwich shop or have a heterosexual marriage. We should ally ourselves with any battles to ensure that workers–all workers–have good working conditions as capitalist patriarchy continues to exist. We must not single out sex workers, but resolve to dismantle the entire repulsive system. We must stop harming sex workers with deeds and words born from paternalism, which ultimately serve to maintain capitalist patriarchy rather than destroy it.

It is a big task, unimaginably vast. With solidarity, perhaps it is possible.


30 thoughts on “There’s no such thing as free choice, so why single out sex workers?”

  1. Heaps of excellent points here – and it’s really good to see someone picking up on the vital importance of economic relations in this issue.

    Personally, I’m wary of two things:

    1) the word ‘patriarchy’ itself, since it is so concretely linked to men and therefore, by default, suggests that women are, per se, different. Although there have not been anywhere near as many examples, there have been enough to show that women with a certain ideological stance behave no differently than men in defending their class and their class’s interests.

    But to suggest that they have, in effect, become ‘male’ is just as sexist as hearing my father proclaim that Margaret Thatcher “is the best man we’ve got”. And simplistic too.

    2) I’ve long thought that a great deal of US/UK feminism is, if not informed by, then certainly influenced by a sort of puritanism. On occasions, some radical feminists have shared positions (and even worked with) right-wing religious conservatives, who most certainly are extremely patriarchal in attitude to sexual relations.

    It always strikes me that that should tell them something, but it never seems to.

    Hopefully that makes sense.

    And yes – I shall be retweeting the link to the blog.

  2. I’ve met women and men who enjoyed sex work. I’ve also been starved and had multiple people attempt to pressure me into it myself despite that I would not enjoy it (asexual) and would only be spreading diseases because I’m already sick and have broken teeth.

    Never had anyone try to force me to become an accountant and threaten to ruin my life if I wouldn’t become one! So yes there is something inherently different about sex work.

    1. Perhaps not an accountant, but have you ever heard of welfare-to-work programmes, which force people into various tasks with the threat of immiseration and poverty?

      Basically, by focusing only on one form of coercion, all of the rest is neglected and nothing can be done.

      I’m sorry to hear what happened to you. It’s just one of the reasons capitalist patriarchy needs to go–not just sex work.

    1. This is a great paper. We need to move beyond the idea of good sex and bad sex and look at why sex workers are more likely to be assaulted, raped and why they fear the police.

      Stigma and the end demand models do nothing the challenge the things that actually endanger sex workers.

  3. Great post, I am reminded of my musings that in a capitalist society perhaps you could define sex work as the only honest sex, since it is time limited and based on a monetary contract which explicitly states what is and is not allowed.

  4. Good piece but I do wonder whether the object of your inquiry is the correct one? You say:

    “From a revolutionary perspective, merely turning our focus on sex work and treating it as having exceptional inherent problems which makes it somehow distinct from the rest of capitalist patriarchy means that we can never make any progress”

    I suggest it is different from capitalist patriarchy because it predates it. The relations of sex work are not necessarily capitalist in nature but more patriarchal as in Pateman’s conceptualisation of the term as male sex-right. In that sense, should societies action be mostly directed toward dealing with the social, psychological, cultural relations that exist rather than the economic relations? Or in other words, should society try to improve the conditions of women’s sex work or put the spotlight on men and say, you do not have a sex-right over women? (which in the current period is structured through capitalist relations of contract, but in years past, was conditioned by, tradition, religion, culture etc)

    The latter is the biggest task and perhaps is too substantial. Whereas dealing with and improving it’s capitalist incarnation is perhaps more achievable?

    1. By constructing sex work entirely in terms of “male sex right”, you are denying sex workers any agency and choice. Furthermore, it falls into the faulty notion that consumer power will be our salvation (it won’t). In terms of sex work, laws targeting punters–as I pointed out above–increase violence against sex workers.

      And finally, I find your use as of an either/or when discussing improving the working conditions of sex workers deeply, deeply problematic. Improving worker’s conditions is a must. For all types of worker.

  5. I agree with most of this, and definitely think sex workers should not be the object of so much leftie hand wringing when, as you say, there’s the whole of the rest of patriarchal capitalism to be getting on with. However, I do think sex work is different in some ways to most other kinds of work because it requires you to put your own body at someone else’s disposal to a greater degree. It’s pretty different, for example, providing a tantric massage in which you touch someone else’s body for their sexual pleasure, and doing the kind of sex work where the client expects you to experience sexual pleasure from them. (From what I’ve heard my sex worker friends, penetrative sex isn’t so much the problem as having to simulate enjoyment from really bad oral…)

    I’m not saying this makes sex work radically different from other kinds of work, just quite different, which is why it’s really important that the area has very strong worker rights. Perhaps analogous work could be taking part in drugs trials or doing a job (like a dancing on cruise ships, or being the Duchess of Cambridge) that involves daily weigh-ins. In these cases, like sex work, you are allowing your employer access to your body to a far greater degree than in other kinds of work. But even then you usually don’t have to pretend you’re getting off on it, unless you’re Kate M.

    Of course, this distinction doesn’t hold in places where dangerous manual labour jobs are common. After all, there’s no greater access an employer can have to your body than to, say, crush you to death in a mining accident.

  6. Hmm. I agree with most of this but I’m not so sure about the conclusion. I completely agree that it’s possible to choose sex work (with the qualifications about free-choice-within-a-patriarchy which you rightly say apply to all sexual consent), but emphasising this in the context of a debate about criminalising punters seems strange to me. I don’t think a majority of sex workers freely choose their profession and I think there often serious abuse involved in both the original ‘decision’ to start such work and the continuing practice of it.

    Yes, we should be allies to sex workers and I don’t condemn them for a second. But while there exist many who *are* coerced and abused, I am more concerned about them. In a capitalist system, I would say that those who choose such a stigmatised job are likely to be the few, while those doing it because they have no other realistic choice are likely to be the many.

    In this context, criminalising punters seems like a step in the right direction to me. Where I live there has been a campaign to publicise a similar new law and I’m pleased to see that they are also using the ‘buying sex is a form of violence against women’ line. While I accept that prostitution = violence is not an *inevitable* outcome, prostitution in its current form does seem to merit the description.

  7. Sex work is unique in that it combines the problems of coerced work and sex under patriarchy together, and also has a cultural effect on the environment women exist in in both the (non-sexual) working and the sexual aspects of their lives. Also it seems pretty disingenuous to suppose that those of us who oppose sex work aren’t also considering problems with rape, and haven’t thought through the idea that all work involves a level of coercion.

    1. Can you elaborate on this proposed effect sex work has on other women? Because sex work exists because of capitalist patriarchy, not the other way round, and I fail to see what you’re trying to say.

      1. At a psychological level, the knowledge that I can trade my sexuality for money should I ever want or need to do so, means that I see my sexuality as a resource that can be commodified.

        Although there is demand for males within the industry, it is not the universal demand as there is for women. Furthermore men simply dont see their sexuality as a resource to be commodified. Penetrative sex is highest in demand, which is something that women usually “do” whereas most men usually do not “do”.

        The more visibility of the sex industry the more it reminds us that if the chips are down we can always sell our sexuality.

  8. First question you say:

    “There’s no such thing as free choice” but then say “Some people choose sex work.”

    Which is it?

    Second question:

    If there’s no such thing as free choice, should we not take as many steps as possible to protect those least able to make a free choice?

    Third question:

    Is all sex rape? Is all work exploitation? You skirt these issues, refuse to take a stand point then draw conclusions based on the assumption that the answer to both these questions is yes. You assume your readers are to thick to follow simple rhetorical tricks. Tough luck.

    Fourth question:

    Would you oppose incremental change to hold on for total revolution

    Because that’s your argument. You claim the patriarchy must be brought down and if it’s not we shall all toil under oppression. Is it not possible to make things better for certain groups – eg sex workers – without tearing down the pillars?

    So why single out sex workers?

    Because they are fucked about, abused and beaten more often than those who take an academic standpoint on their work.

    For shame.

    1. It’s very interesting that you expect answers to be spoonfed to you, yet clearly haven’t read anything said by sex workers, even in this thread. Bless.

  9. I don’t think it is possible for someone to pay for sex without it affecting the way they view their interactions with the opposite sex in other areas of their life. That is a consequence of the patriarchy already, and the industry itself is a consequence of the patriarchy, but prostitution is a behaviour which forms part of this feedback loop rather than short-circuiting it.

  10. When you say “We must not single out sex workers, but resolve to dismantle the entire repulsive system.” I agree with you entirely. But the Nordic model specifically doesn’t single out sex workers – it completely legalises sex workers and gives them much better access to rights and justice. It singles out the root causes of the trade in women’s bodies – the demand. It says “we will not have our sex lives be a part of your capitalist patriarchal bullshit system”. And all the evidence suggests it leads to a dramatic collapse of pimping, trafficking and exploitation. Of course it needs to be coupled with effective support systems for women who have become dependant on that income. And yes there are other problems out there that need solving too but it seems a waste to throw out a really good idea that can dramatically improve thousands of women’s lives just because the idea doesn’t solve some other problems. Lets take what we can get and move on, no?

    1. Except, as I pointed out, and if you ask any sex workers, the Nordic model increases violence.

      By opting for a system which sex workers do not want and makes life harder, you are singling them out.

    2. The Nordic model […] completely legalises sex workers and gives them much better access to rights and justice. […] And all the evidence suggests it leads to a dramatic collapse of pimping, trafficking and exploitation.

      No, it doesn’t. The Nordic model is extremely dangerous for sex workers. Here are a whole bunch of problems that have been caused by its implementation in Oslo, for example:

      Lets take what we can get and move on, no?

      No. Let’s listen to sex workers and let’s prioritise harm reduction. Let’s not implement legislation that harms the most vulnerable, while claiming we’ve achieved some kind of victory against patriarchy.

      1. Suppose you made it illegal to buy lentils rather than sex, but decriminalised its sale.

        Would we see an increased level of violence towards lentil sellers, or would the majority of lentil sellers move into a different industry while a minority continued to supply to those who ignored the legal restrictions on its sale?

        Why does the same law of supply/demand not work in the sex industry, if indeed it is just an industry like any other?

  11. Reblogged this on The Sex Work Brief and commented:
    Check the stats on people who hate other jobs they are in some time. 90% is NOT unusual at all…yet no-one suggests rescuing them and prosecuting those they work for.

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